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Food Science Team Earns High Placing at National Competition

If you find yourself getting tired of the traditional Thanksgiving feast this year and wish you could just microwave an entire gourmet meal to feed your family, three LSU students may be able to help.

Don’t want the tryptophan-induced coma that accompanies a helping of turkey? Try grilled mahi-mahi. Sick of your aunt’s mashed potatoes? Try sweet potato medallions instead.

And the whole thing will take just a minute to heat up in the microwave.

Try doing that with a 30-pound Butterball®.

This past spring, three LSU undergraduate students—Madalyn Thibodaux, a senior from Parks, Amy Jones, a junior from Port Allen, and Lyndsey White, a junior from New Orleans—competed at the 2008 Research Chefs Association (RCA) Annual Conference in Seattle, where they took home a top-five finish in the Student Culinology Competition.

The trio initially came together in October 2007, where they were presented with a “simple” plan: create a frozen meal based on traditional Northwest cuisine that would retail for $9.99 for two servings, submit the proposal to the RCA, get named one of the five national finalists to compete in Seattle, ship the aforementioned frozen meal to Seattle, microwave it to defrost it, make an identical Gold Standard meal from scratch in 90 minutes, and present them both to the judges for comparison.

Easy as pie—a very complicated pie.

LSU had never entered a team in the competition before, and while that made the women pioneers in the food science department, it also meant they went in without the benefit of prior experience. Department Head John Finley and alumnus Darryl Holliday worked with the team in the developmental stages, with Finley providing the students with resources while Holliday honed their knife skills. Ultimately, though, it all came down to what the trio could cook up in the kitchen, and what the judges were hungry for when the proposals were mailed in.

“Madalyn left me all these messages, and I called her back yelling, ‘What? What do you want?’” said Jones. “She said, ‘Oh my God, Amy, we made it.’ I started screaming in the middle of the Rec., I was standing in line at the Smoothie King® screaming, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to Seattle.’”

The meal the judges had deemed finalist-worthy was grilled mahi-mahi buerre blanc topped with toasted walnuts and cherries over a bed of sweet potato medallions, alongside toasted sourdough green beans. In addition, the LSU team was the only finalist with a dessert—honey granola-encrusted raspberry-poached apples.

“Our dish was very colorful and very healthy,” explained Thibodaux, who, in addition to her team placing, also received a $1,500 Research Chefs Foundation scholarship at the conference. “We used a lot of vegetables and fruits. We had sweet potatoes, green beans, apples, raspberries, and cherries. Our meal was more for a health-conscious individual who wanted two servings or a couple who wanted a meal for convenience.”

While coming up with a delicious frozen meal was challenging enough—“When was the last time you had a frozen meal that was so amazing that you thought you could hardly wait to eat again?” Jones said—the act of making the gold standard from scratch proved doubly difficult.

“We had to grill our fish,” said Thibodaux. “We practiced it a thousand times, and we put down on our equipment list that we needed a grill. I called ahead of time to see if they had a grill available and they told me they did, but we got up there and they said there was not one available to us.”

Already operating in cramped quarters—the competition took place in a hallway, with the teams cooking on tables pushed up against a wall while cameramen filmed their every move—the team had to think on the fly to come up with an alternative.

“We got two tiny omelet burners,” said Jones. “I used an oven rack and I grilled the fish over a flame the size of a quarter.”

“The fish actually came out pretty nice looking,” Thibodaux said. “We’re a creative bunch, and we’d improvised in the past due to facilities [at LSU] because we didn’t always have a grill to work on. We’d practiced that by improvising ahead of time, but we didn’t think it would get brought into play up there.”

The lack of a grill was soon overshadowed by another problem that no amount of MacGuyver-like improvisation could make up for, as a last-minute change to the frozen meal before it was shipped to Seattle came back to haunt the food scientists.

“When we began this competition we found the trays that we wanted to use and they were sectioned off,” said White. “Then we decided to use modified atmospheric packaging because it preserves the food much better, but when we did that we had to use containers that didn’t have sections. We decided to put the dessert in a separate container in there, and we did that at the last minute not realizing it was not microwave safe.”

“It was the most pathetic display,” laughed Jones. “Oh, it was bad. The chefs were heating it, and I looked over and it was a melted cup with raspberry spilling everywhere. I thought, ‘Oh God – who wants to eat that?’

“No team had it down though, everybody had something they could’ve done better. It was our first try, and compared to some of the other teams, it really shocked me—we were the youngest team there. A lot of these people had been in the industry for years and were chefs, and we didn’t know the first thing about it. I guess we are a little better off than an accounting major, but we’re more into the science.”

Despite the hiccups, the team acknowledged that merely making the final five was an achievement, and the fact that the top three place-getters—Johnson and Wales University, the University of Cincinnati, and Mississippi College for Women—all had culinary schools, while LSU does not, did not go unnoticed by the luminaries present at the conference.

“John Folse said he would hire all of [the LSU students],” said Finley.

The competition was held on the first morning of the conference, leaving the trio with four days to take in the Seattle sights and roam the halls enjoying the RCA exhibits at the expo. Besides the endless networking opportunities presented to them—all received internship and graduate school scholarship offers—there were plenty of taste-testing opportunities to take advantage of, though some turned out to be more appetizing than others.

“The weirdest thing we found was an egg-flavored marshmallow that had been wrapped in bacon-flavored cotton candy,” said Jones. “I went up there thinking, ‘Ooh, cotton candy,’ and I grabbed it and put it in my mouth and wondered ‘Why was my cotton candy salty?’”

But while the three went out of their way to try anything they could during their downtime in Seattle, after five months spent preparing for the competition, there was one thing they weren’t in any hurry to see before them.

“I took them out to lunch afterwards,” Finley said, “and nobody ordered mahi-mahi.”

Damian Foley | Writer | Office of Public Affairs
Fall 2008

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